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November 17, 2011

Ocean Alliance advances study on pollution, whales

When whale biologist and Ocean Alliance founder Roger Payne began his career, the chief threat to whales was commercial whaling.

At that time, in the late 1960s, Payne estimates that 33,000 great whales were killed annually across the globe. That number has dropped significantly, due to the 1986 International Whaling Commission's moratorium on whaling. Although a number of countries continue to hunt whales, including Norway, Iceland and Japan — which many critics say cloaks its whaling practice under the auspice of scientific research — Payne believes that, at least for now, commercial whaling will not bring these cetaceans to the brink of extinction.

Instead, he worries about another threat: Pollution.

Payne bases this concern on Ocean Alliance's own research.

The conservation organization, launched in 1971 — and now, under Iain Kerr as its CEO, looking to move its headquarters to Gloucester on the grounds of a restored and renovated Tarr & Wonson Paint Factory — has been studying whales since its inception. Payne, himself, came into the spotlight when he co-discovered in 1967 that humpback whales "sing"¬ù to each other.

Arguably, the organization's most significant work is its massive, five-year study that measured the baseline levels of contaminants in whales around the world.

"People have known since the early '60s there was a real problem from pollutants," Payne says. "But no one had a global view of it. This was the first global view."

So, from 2000 to 2005, Ocean Alliance's 93-foot vessel, the Odyssey, snaked its way around 21 countries and 118 ports. During that time, Ocean Alliance's team gathered whale and marine life samples across the world, including more than 950 sperm whale biopsy samples.

"We looked at sperm whales because they are living at the same level of the food chain which humans are living at,"¬ù explains Payne. "So what is happening in the sperm whale is probably similar to what is happening with people."

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